This is not about equating their actions. But equating their politics? That’s what a journalism industry fiercely committed to accuracy would do.
The El Paso shooter and President Donald Trump share the same basic political goal: to create an atmosphere of intimidation and violence in order to pressure Hispanic migrants from entering the United States.
How do I know this? Because I read the shooter’s manifesto.
I’m a historian of the American far right, which means I make it a point to read every single manifesto put out by right-wing mass murderers— the Christchurch shooter, the Poway shooter, and the El Paso shooter in the past six months alone. There are good arguments for neither naming the shooters nor platforming their views, and while I am making a deliberate choice in this article to not name any of the perpetrators of the massacres, I believe it is important to actually take the ideas that motivate these attacks seriously.
That means talking about what’s actually in the manifesto. You will not see a link to the document in this article, but I will briefly summarize it and try to place the shooter’s ideas in context.
The El Paso manifesto hits all the highlights of the modern international far right. The very first sentence is an affirmation of support for the Christchurch shooter, whose own rambling manifesto centered around the “Great Replacement,” a right-wing white nationalist trope that white people in Europe and North America are being “replaced” by black and brown immigrants with the connivance of political and cultural elites. (This was also the basis of the “Jews will not replace us!” chant by neo-Nazis at Charlottesville). But there were several distinct features of the El Paso shooter’s manifesto.
As the historian Bill Black has pointed out, the manifesto was unmistakably eco-fascist. The shooter wrote that climate change will wreak unimaginable havoc and that American levels of consumption — one of the key contributors to climate change — are unsustainable. This is true enough. But the shooter’s main climate concern is that black and brown refugees fleeing their countries from the effects of climate change will overwhelm America. The only solution, in his view, is to reduce the surplus population. This is the logic of genocide.
Tied to the shooter’s nightmare vision of an America “invaded” by black and brown refugees were fears of political change. The shooter was obsessed over the prospect of Texas turning “blue.” He cited Democratic “pandering” to the Hispanic vote in the first Democratic presidential debate — almost certainly a reference to Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker’s use of Spanish. The shooter wrote that the influx of Hispanic migrants and their children would turn Texas into a Democratic stronghold, all but guaranteeing the creation of a Democratic one-party state beholden to Hispanic voters.
The shooter was explicit on this point and came back to it several times in his manifesto, so it bears repeating: He believes that Hispanic immigration needs to be stopped to prevent the Democratic Party from gaining power in Texas.
The shooter argued that with violence acting as a deterrent, Hispanic immigrants would either leave the country or not come to the United States in the first place.
This is the explicit logic behind the Trump administration’s brutal immigration policies, from deportation raids (targeting citizens, no less) to child separation to the administration’s system of concentration camps.
This point cannot be emphasized enough. The political logic on immigration of the El Paso shooter and the Trump administration are identical. This is not an attempt at a smear—it follows from the very things administration officials themselves, as well as Donald Trump, have told us. The El Paso shooter is in a very real sense the unofficial paramilitary wing of Trumpism.
And this is to say nothing of the Republican Party writ large. The El Paso shooter fears a one-party Democratic state in Texas fueled by Hispanic voters. There already is a one-party state in Texas fueled by Anglo voters. The Republican Party has held a monopoly on the Texas governor’s mansion and legislature for over 16 years.
Prominent Republican officials share the shooter’s concerns. Only two months ago, Senator John Cornyn tweeted out, with apparent alarm, an article from the Texas Tribune that the state gained nine Hispanic residents for every white resident in 2018.
President Trump himself endorsed the explicit goal of the El Paso shooter by calling, in a tweet two days after the shooting, for immigration reform, tying it to Democratic demands for gun control.
Not two months ago, Trump laughed off calls from the audience at one of his rallies to literally shoot immigrants.
A useful frame of analysis to understanding acts of right-wing political terror like the El Paso shooting is to distinguish between state-sponsored and paramilitary violence.
This has long been a dividing line between white nationalists and less radical elements of the racist American right. The basic idea is the former believe that only revolutionary violence can effectively create a white ethnostate, the latter — who effectively share the same goal — believe it can be done through state power.
President Trump has been walking the tightrope between both factions, on the one hand using brutal state violence to deter Hispanic migrants from entering the United States and forcing out those already here. On the other hand, the president is actively inciting paramilitary violence, on the El Paso model, against immigrants.
These two strategies are chillingly interlinked. A number of reports have estimated the number of wounded in the El Paso shooting is much higher than the official count because undocumented victims were reluctant to seek medical attention lest they be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
None of this is an accident. And the media needs to be explicitly clear about the connections between the policies and political goals of the Trump administration and those of the El Paso shooter.
Which is why it has been so frustrating to see some of the leading outlets botch their coverage of the shooting so badly.
The New York Times’ coverage has been especially disappointing. After a half-hearted speech by Trump condemning the El Paso shooting, the Times’ initial headline for its August 6, 2019 edition read “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM.” This not only failed to make the connections between Trumpism and its paramilitary wing, but suggested the two were diametrically opposed. And this was after Trump’s initial tweet in response to the shooting which centered on immigration reform.
The Times’ opinion page in the aftermath of the shooting was somewhat better — the editors published an op-ed by Kathleen Belew, a scholar of white nationalist terrorism, and wrote their own editorial condemning white nationalist violence. But even here, the message was muddled; in one paragraph, the Times suggested there is space to work with “those who sympathize with the white nationalist ideology but who deplore the violence.”
This misses the point: there is no non-violent white nationalism. The distinction, insofar as there is one, is between white nationalists who seek to use state violence to achieve their ends (White House advisor Stephen Miller is in this camp) and those who believe that paramilitary violence is necessary (this is the camp of the El Paso shooter).
The above is not a post hoc distinction intentionally engineered to make the president look bad. It’s a explanatorily useful framework for understanding the essence of white nationalism, and the conceptual link between the El Paso shooter and Trumpian immigration policy follows from a close reading of the manifesto alongside statements of the president, his advisors, and supporters in Congress. None of this is new — the president has been wink-wink-nudge-nudging his sympathy for white nationalists since at least Charlottesville.
Consider, too, that Bret Stephens, a Times columnist, has repeatedly published material that is ideologically similar to the points raised in the El Paso shooter’s manifesto. “They speak Spanish,” Stephens wrote in a column on the first Democratic debate — remember, the El Paso shooter wrote explicitly in his manifesto he was disgusted by Democratic “pandering” to Hispanics. “They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are.”
Stephens went on to use literally the same language as the shooter. “The only thing worse than an obnoxious gringo is a pandering one.”
Predictably, the response on the right has been to dismiss or downplay white nationalist violence. Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson declared white supremacy a “hoax” on his show last night. Meanwhile, The Federalist predictably blamed the left for the shooting while also repeating the talking points from the El Paso shooter’s manifesto, arguing that Democrats were responsible for their “[refusal] to enforce our borders while promising to give taxpayer-paid health care to illegal immigrants.”
Arc associate editor Cathy Young took a slightly different approach. She wrote in a piece for The Forward that the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, which occurred less than 24 hours after the shooting in El Paso, is “proof” that we need to take left-wing terrorism seriously. The Dayton shooter, who had a long history of violent and misogynistic statements, apparently had voiced support for Elizabeth Warren on Twitter.
Her piece was hugely irresponsible. The massacre in Dayton was a detestable crime and part of a broader political crisis revolving around violent misogyny, but it was distinct from the El Paso shooting. The El Paso shooter explicitly said in his manifesto that his attack was intended to keep Hispanics from coming to Texas and to prevent the Democratic Party from winning elections in the state. This is part of a long tradition of political violence in America aimed to keep black, brown, and immigrant voters away from the polls, dating back at least to Reconstruction.
Unless a manifesto surfaces in which the Dayton shooter explicitly stated that he chose his target to keep Rob Portman voters away from the polls, Dayton is categorically different from El Paso.
We are adrift in a sea of false equivalencies and faux-neutrality from the media that only serves to normalize and perpetuate white nationalist violence. Editors need to stop publishing superficial analyses simply for the sake of nonpartisanship. Major media outlets desperately need to clearly identify and analyze the basic pattern of right-wing violence in the United States — both from the state and from paramilitaries — and how the president and his supporters deliberately foment the violence.
David Austin Walsh is a PhD candidate at Princeton University. His dissertation is on the connections between the far right and the conservative movement in the mid-20th century. His writings have appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Washington Monthly, Tablet, Dissent, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAstinWalsh.